header icons

Christ Our Peace, Unifier of the World: A Note on the Invariable Calamity of War – War is not Normative

The Christian appraisal of armed hostility is sometime reduced to a set of doctrinal criteria purporting to sum up the morally significant aspects of war. An alternative and equally hallowed approach is the appeal to a pervasive human sinfulness so toxic as irremediably to infect the structure of human existence with bloodshed and killing. But neither the doctrine of the just war nor the notion of original sin, taken separately or together, brings into focus the person and mission of Christ. And it is from the teaching that Christ is the reconciling Unifier of the world that Christians draw the key aspects of their under-standing of war.

Christ came to gather together the scattered members of the human species into a single worshipping plenitude of angels and mankind. The promise to the repentant thief removed the enmity between the earth, the historic place of the tragedy of war, and the unending peace of paradise. Christ tore down the “wall of separation,” the Pauline symbol for the manifold forces which drive humans apart in hatred, envy and mutual destruction. It is true that human nature continues to manifest a disturbing proclivity for dislocation and conflict. This proclivity, however, has now been exposed to the healing grace of Christ.

States prosecute wars under the postulated legitimacy of freely taken decisions of policy. A policy assumption that is frequently adopted asserts the recurring necessity of war as a feature of the ongoing differen-tiation of the life of the human spirit. Under the misguided logic of this assumed premise, war is mandated not only as the primary instrument of inter-national security but also as a fundamental force of the sanguinary advance of humanity through history to its ultimate finale. War, in consequence, becomes a normative instrument of the rationalization of the world.

Now the thesis that war is normative both in policy and in the unfolding of the human spirit has vast theological signifi-cance. For that thesis would by implication invest the state with the permanent power to identify and define within time groups of human beings with whom reconciliation is in principle deemed impossible. War is waged against such persons in the exclusive interests of other individuals who are, it is presumed, destined alone to be the victors in the bloody course of human history.

This understanding of war is inconsistent with Christianity’s teaching about the unifying mission of Christ. For Christ came to forge a single plenitude of angels and humans that would worship God in spirit and in truth. The victory through which that plenitude is attained is the goal of history. Now no one living in time is ineligible to be numbered among the worshippers of God; no one is ineligible to share the fruits of the eschatological victory of God’s justice. The establish-ment of the defining limits of the plenitude is a work, not of time, but of eternity, springing from an eternal Wisdom the decrees of whose equity will be disclosed only at the end of history. Otherwise put: the number of those who will be victorious with God at the end of time is known to the Creator alone. This truth is inconsistent with the view that, in taking recourse to war, the state is employing the normative instruments for sorting out history’s victors. It is rather the case that the number of history’s victors, assembled in the worshipping plenitude, is in the exclusive hands of God.

The Myth of Violent Negation as the Rational Form of Civilization

Two centuries of debate on issues of war and peace have attempted to justify the normative rationality of war. This profoundly flawed concept is relevant at the moment because it has prominently surfaced in recent discussions of international policy (see Scott McConnell, “Among the Neocons,” in The American Conservative, April 23, 2003, pp. 7-11); and for the more directly Catholic connection, see Franklin Foer, “Is Bush Catholic? in The New Republic, June 5, 2000; for the general trend in progress here, see J.P. Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, ed. of 1992, pp. 203-206 and 357). Hegel, at the outset of the debate, viewed war in function of his account of human reason, whose advance, he held, combined the quest for rational comprehension with the bloody dialogue that is the stuff of history. The mind’s initial darkness can be overcome only through a self-obliterating, self-negating search to know. This cognitive dislocation and its inherent conflict were, for Hegel, the very essence of sin. Thus the sin of Adam should, as he put it, “be placed at the summit of the science of logic, which treats of knowledge, for in that sin [he calls it a ‘myth’] it is knowledge that is at stake…” Conflict, opposition and ne-gation stand at the fountainhead of human history, constituting the emblem of civilization’s rational form. In this context, war becomes a normative condition of ethical wholeness. “War has the higher significance,” writes Hegel, “that by its agency the ethical health of peoples is preserved…. The corruption of nations would be the product of prolonged peace” (Foundations of the Philosophy of Right, #324).

Hegel’s philosophical militarism attracted the attention of a host of twentieth century commentators who viewed Hegel from the perspectives of the philosophy of Karl Marx. Perhaps the most visible of these writers was George Lukacs, author of History and Class Consciousness (1923, 1968). The proletariat, Lukacs taught, will emancipate mankind by progressively negating the whole system of capitalist social and economic relations. Lukacs was impressed by what he took to be the successes of the Bolshevik dictatorship of Russia. The negation of capitalism undertaken by the Stalinist regime seemed indeed, to open up new possibilities of rationality and justice. Stalin’s ascendancy over Trotsky, Lukacs quickly concluded, was the incarnation of world historical reason. Terror, of course, was an essential ingredient of Russian social-ism’s negation of capitalist structures. Lukacs was accordingly quite ready to defend terror as a primary instrument of the spread of reason’s rule throughout the world.

Only slightly less influential than Lukacs was Alexander Kojève, whose Parisian lectures on Hegel helped to shape a generation of French intellectuals. Kojève, like Lukacs, took from Hegel his stress on the role of negation in the historical advance of the Spirit. Unlike Lukacs, he held that the history of the Spirit would end in the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama has called a universal and homo-geneous Capitalism (The End of History and the Last Man, 1992, p. 245). Even after the establishment of the triumphant capitalist order, Kojève taught, the universally dominant capitalist state will have to maintain itself through re-pressive terror and violence. The dominant seat of this violently maintained world, Kojève held, would be America.

Belief in emancipation through negation reached a momentary peak in the general uprising which took hold of France in the spring and summer of 1968. Graffiti on the ancient surface of the Sorbonne pro-claimed the practical essence of the myth: “Pour tout ce qui est contre. Contre tout ce qui est pour” (For everything that is against. Against everything that is for). At work here, one might argue, was a generous endeavor to master the injustices of history through escalating doses of destructive ingenuity. Kojève’s Universal Tyrant, a single empire enforced by terror, would be the paradigm of these ventures in violence in the service of a so-called justice. Consider the flip-side of Kojève’s triumphant Capitalism, however. The maintenance of the super-state would almost inevitably generate a veritable culture of internationally marketed military technology. Weapons and war would presumably undergird the prosperity of the great Empire and of the nations which would exist in its shadow. This scenario’s potential for injustice, including its tolerance for the mass destruction of human life, is as troubling as it is obvious.

Freedom in the Exercise of Political Power

Belief in the power and inevitability of historical negation is periodically defended by dominant ideological cliques. It happens that, in function of decisions predicated on this belief, states engage in acts of preemptive and punitive violence. To attribute these decisions, and the resulting responsibility, exclusively to those ideologues and their constituencies would seem seriously to reduce the moral significance-the culpability-of the actions of the state. Can the state, then, claim moral neutrality when it engages in acts of violence under advice from dominant militarist elites and other urgent pressure from powerful constituencies? The answer is strongly suggested in the Scriptural account of the complicity of the Roman state in the death of Christ.

Pilate is there portrayed as claiming to be morally neutral when, in spite of recognition of the innocence of Christ, he cynically (but freely) sur-rendered to a violent world the decision as to how the power of the Roman state would be exercised in the sequel to Christ’s trial. The decision, he would pretend, did not pertain to the power of Rome (“taking water, he washed his hands…”: Mtt. 27-24). But Pilate had already freely decided to deliver the Lord to the frantic populace and its outraged ideologues. His disclaimer could not, therefore, erase Rome’s direct complicity in the death of Jesus. Rome’s abuse of power in the freely acting person of Pilate would ultimately encounter God’s moment of judgment: “Babylon (the Bible’s Rome), great Babylon has fallen…-drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore witness…” (Rev. 14:8, 17:6). The underlying supposition is plain. The state, in its representatives, is directly answerable to God for any violent behavior whose use it has authorized. This will hold even when the state acts under the pressure of resolute elites and their powerful con-stituencies.

There is an alternative to this grim picture of voluntarily abused political power and its ultimate denouement under the judgment of God. This fresh option would call into play the principles of a laboriously devised rationality of con-structive equity. Laws and customs would aim at transforming human ferocity, avarice and ambition into energizing sources of the social institutions of free societies. Sovereign nations, guided by the common wisdom of the peoples of the world, would freely enter into joint endeavors to avail themselves of the planet’s virtually unbounded promise. With the spread of human equality, as de Toqueville points out, “all nations [would] ultimately regard war as a calamity almost as severe to the conqueror as to the conquered” (Democracy in America, vol. 2, chapter XXVI). There might, of course, be circumstances in which justice itself would drive men and women to give their lives in the interests of freedom. But war and the institutionally sanctioned use of force could never be proposed as the rational form of the political order.

The public exercise of power, in this alternative and better world, would imitate the very equity of God’s justice. Humanity would yield itself to the great synthesis that was promised in Christ’s words to the good thief: This day, in you, the war-ridden earth will be reconciled with the home of eternal peace. And enemies between whom reconciliation had once seemed impossible would now be potential friends. For the Lord “has made the two nations one, breaking down the barrier between us, the enmity there was between us, in His own mortal nature” (Ephesians 2:14).



Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, July-August 2003.